Differing perspectives on WTO Ministerial

Recent informal consultations and a formal meeting of the WTO's General Council have revealed a divergence of views among members on the issues to be addressed at the second Ministerial Conference in May. While many developing countries are calling for the Ministerial to focus on full implementation of existing agreements, the industrialized nations are in favour of the inclusion of new issues in the future agenda.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: Following some wide-ranging views at informal consultations and at a formal meeting of the General Council, the Director-General of the WTO is to prepare a draft text for a possible Ministerial declaration or statement to come out of the 2nd Ministerial Conference of the WTO in May here.

Discussions in the first week of April brought out an element of understanding at a very general level on a possible outcome, through a negotiated text, but with widely differing perceptions and nuanced views on the process after May, and looking towards the third Ministerial meeting.

But the discussions and preoccupations over preparations for the biennial WTO Ministerial meetings and for launching rounds of negotiations through such meetings in fact undercut one of the prime arguments advanced in 1993 for the establishment of the WTO, namely as a forum for negotiations on trade issues covered in the WTO accords, without having to go through the earlier GATT (provisional treaty) practice of ministers having to agree on and launch negotiations.

Negotiated text

In consultations earlier in March, it had been agreed that there would be a negotiated text to come out of the May Ministerial Conference. An informal process headed by Director- General Renato Ruggiero had been established to agree on a text.

Ruggiero and his aides are working on a draft text, and this is to be considered at a General Council meeting on 24 April, trade officials reported on 2 April.

At an informal consultation in the first week of April, there was a consensus that the text should be short, not include controversial matters, and be balanced,reflecting the important objective of implementation of the agreements and the future work programme.

But the comments and views of delegations drew a distinction between the built-in agenda of the WTO and other aspects of work in the future.

There are controversies and differences of views on the other aspects of future work too. Some, like the EC, would like to have additional items attached to the future agenda, apart from the built-in agenda, while developing countries are presently resisting it.

Both at the Singapore Ministerial meeting and since then, the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries have been pressing for taking in hand, with some visibility, preparations for the next stage of reforms in agricultural trade, which the Agreement on Agriculture envisages being taken up in 1999.

From this perspective, they have been anxious to get some specific references or commitments to come out of the 2nd Ministerial meeting in May, and to start a process to enable the launch of these negotiations in 1999.

For its part, the European Union, whose agricultural protectionism is a main target of the Cairns Group, has been promoting a new round, the so-called "millennium round", with agriculture and some of the new issues (figuring in study groups) to be thrown in.

The EC Council of Ministers, at a meeting in Brussels in the first week of April, authorized EC Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan to call for a new round of trade negotiations at the May Ministerial. Some of the other industrial countries also want to have some of the items in the Singapore Declaration of the WTO included.

The WTO agreements envisage negotiations on agriculture to be taken up in 1999 and a further round of negotiations on services in 2000 - and both involve some preparatory work.

At Singapore, the ministers authorized study groups on trade and investment and trade and competition - but neither of these involves any commitment to take up negotiations. The two study groups are to make reports by 1998, and it will then be for the WTO members to consider them and decide what to do. A third area of study, on government procurement, envisages some kind of negotiations on transparency.

Differing views

The comments and views at consultations in the first week of April, at an informal meeting on 1 April and at a formal General Council meeting on 2 April fully reflected the gaps in thinking and perceptions among delegations.

Trade officials said there was broad agreement on the negotiated text reflecting the political aspect and on preparations for the third Ministerial meeting and providing guidelines for Geneva negotiators on implementation and future work.

While the EC, the Cairns Group and several others want to hold the third Ministerial at the end of 1999, there have been reservations and objections to this, voiced, in particular, by Egypt.

Pakistan said that the future work, at this point, should only involve the built-in agenda and take up the issues of whether existing agreements are being implemented, whether they are achieving their objectives, and whether the benefits are balanced.

This view, trade officials reported after the meetings, received wide support from many developing countries.

Pakistan also called for a follow-up mechanism to monitor implementation - either in a body set up by the General Council or within the General Council itself. The future work on agriculture and services should be handled only within their respective committees or councils.

Pakistan also raised the issue of whether the political declaration would be a recommitment to the multilateral trading system or something else. It did not want to renew the iscussions of the Singapore Conference or take up issues within the competence of other international organizations.

Egypt insisted that the WTO envisaged Ministerial Conferences to be held once in two years and that the next should therefore only be held in the year 2000. Any built-in work and review (in agriculture or elsewhere) could be taken up without a Ministerial meeting to launch the negotiations. On future work, Egypt said the emphasis should be on implementation.

Brunei, speaking for ASEAN, wanted a minimum of specificity in the declaration with regard to the sectoral negotiations and discussions and said that these should not prejudice the third Ministerial Conference.

The EC explained the decision of the Council of Ministers for a "global, comprehensive and wide-ranging" approach to begin negotiations in 2000, and for a decision to be taken by end 1999 on future trade liberalization. The May Ministerial meeting should not prejudice future work.

Australia said that ministers should be able to decide in 1999 on how and when they would negotiate on a future agenda, and that there should not be specificity in the declaration coming out of the 1998 meet.

Japan wanted the text to call for a strengthening of the system. Balanced implementation, in Japan's view, should mean full and faithful implementation of the agreements, and not going backwards.

Mexico said that the political message coming out of the declaration should be a "WTO message", and issues outside WTO competence should not be taken up. The implementation should be of the built-in agenda and any work programme emanating from the Singapore Conference, and there should be clear guidelines for the work to be done between the second and third Ministerial meets.

Canada said the role of the WTO in promoting economic growth should be maintained and ministers should be able to add new items to the negotiating agenda beyond what was in the built-in agenda.

India supported the comments of Pakistan and Mexico. It was important for a message to come out of the meeting that the WTO was capable of recognizing the different levels of development among its members, and that developing countries had problems in fulfilling commitments undertaken in good faith. These should be discussed without prejudice. The second problem of the balance in benefits should also be examined. Many developing countries have not gotten as much benefits as the industrial countries have, and it would be unfortunate if this could not be discussed and addressed at the Ministerial Conference. The future activities should be those reflected in the built-in agenda.

The US wanted the issues of industrial tariffs and reduction to be included. The Geneva Ministerial outcome should also provide for any additions in the agenda if countries wanted them.

Brazil wanted a message that addresses the strengthening of the multilateral system and the needs of developing countries. The General Council should be the locus for implementation or any other areas of work.

A number of Southern African countries said that if they had not expressed any views so far, it was because their ministers were meeting in Harare and were considering these very issues.

The formal meeting of the General Council on 2 April agreed on the organization of the May Ministerial meeting, with a formal opening session on 18 May, and two working sessions (instead of earlier proposals for informal meetings of the ministers) in the afternoon of the18th and the morning of the 19th. The working sessions, with the secretariat keeping minutes and making them available to delegations, would deal with the implementation issues and guidelines for future work. (Third World Economics No. 182, 1-15 April 1998)

Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).